An update on the child

I’ve more or less recovered from whatever I had, so I’ve actually got some energy to post.  Herewith a quick update on the person in the parka and the skin clothes, etc that accompanied her (I’m no sure the person is a girl, but I need to pick a pronoun.

I was able to get the pantaloons off, although the legs fell apart.  The boot part was apparently made from either leg skins or fawn skins.  The waist seems to be have been made out of something similar, maybe as a waistband.  The main part of the pants is regular caribou hide, which has much longer thicker hair.  Since the waistband was wrapped around a belt made from a piece of hide, perhaps the regular caribou was too thick and inflexible to be suitable.

Fragment of belt, just above the photo scale.

The back of the parka was about 10-15 cm longer (I can’t be more precise since the preservation was not perfect), and looked like it may have had a rounded hem.  As far as I could see, there were no seams.  According to Murdoch (which seems to be out of print again except in print-on-demand), children’s parka didn’t have back seams, but I am waiting on a couple of other books on skin clothing, and a few more experienced skin sewers opinions.

Back of parka. Outside of garment (after it was flipped). Shoulders at top.

It took a bit of doing to get a look at the back, since it was fairly well stuck to the caribou hide underneath.  I ended up getting Shawn to help me.  We got a piece of Visqueen underneath the whole thing, very carefully, put plastic on top of it, and then put a piece of plywood on top to stabilize everything, held the plastic tight to the wood, and flipped everything.  It worked well, and we were able to use the same method for the sewn wolf-skin item (still unidentified).

The wolf-skin has a lot of seams.  Some bits are badly preserved or very badly matted, so it’s not clear what it used to be.  However, a number of the smaller pieces that have been sewn together are still pretty much intact.  I tried putting a picture of it onto my iPad, and opening it with Omnigraffle, so I could try drawing on the seam.  I’m hoping that it will make it easier to understand, and that maybe someone will recognize what those pieces go to.  I know this can work, since Bertha Leavitt was able to identify that the little girl from Ukkuqsi was buried with a kayak cover (among other things) based on the shape of a couple of pieces of sewn boat cover skins.

I’m still working on the drawings a bit to clean them up, and I’ll put them up on a separate page when they’re ready.

I also managed to finish a review today, and to get a bit done on a paper that I owe some folks.  Both are actually for the same journal, different issues.

Folks were out whaling, and Panigeo crew took a whale, which is probably nearly done being butchered by now (judging by Jimmy Nukapigak’s Facebook updates :-)) .  There was supposed to be one or maybe two more possibly struck, but I’m not sure yet.  The weather is supposed to get worse, so I hope they get in soon.

The child is out

Just a short post, because I’m home celebrating my birthday (mostly by coughing–the cold has moved to my chest).

The child is completely out of the parka and pantaloons (Murdoch’s term), and Shawn was able to examine the remains.  No change in the age estimate.

I was able to get some pictures of the boot part of the pantaloons.  They look like they may have been made from leg skin (something with shorter finer hair than the main part of a caribou hide), with separate soles.

Sole of the left boot

There was a seam up the middle of the vamp on each boot.  The boots seem to have been sewn to the pants, which were of caribou hide.

Seam up the vamp

More tomorrow.

Halfway done

I’m about halfway done getting the child out of the parka.  Fannie Akpik came out to look at the stitches.  She agreed with Qaiyaan and me that the stitching on the parka looked like waterproof seams, even though it is clearly caribou, which isn’t normally waterproof.  I took some samples to test for presence of marine mammal oil, which might have helped make it water-resistant anyway.

Stitches on the parka

I’m trying to video the whole “excavation” process, both to document it and to serve as a backup to notes & bag labels.  I’ve reversed the photostand I have, and put it on a lab bench with the camera mount at the tippy top, overhanging the person on the sheet of plywood.  I can just get the camera high enough to get the whole thing in the shot.  I use a stepladder to get up and down to work on it.  The only problem is that there is no low battery warning, so it just dies, which it did a couple of times yesterday.  Today we started setting alarms on our phones to check the camera, so that more or less solved that problem.  I haven’t been able to download the card yet.  The SD card readers at work are getting touchy, and my Mac at home said it couldn’t read the card.  The camera sees files, so maybe I need to hook it up directly.

Lab setup for documentation. Camera at upper right center. The child is under the plastic on the lab bench.

While looking at the wolf, we noticed that some of the pieces were cut with a rounded edge, and Fannie, who is Nuvukmuit (that’s the preferred spelling in their dialect, not Nuvugmiut) herself, thought it could be related to the rounded tail on the atikłuks they make for their dance group today.  Later I found another seam where wolf had been sewn to caribou.

Fur side of the wolf. Amazingly well-preserved!
Backside of the wolf, showing the stitching. It's a regular whip stitch. The sinew is still preserved.

It’s amazing how nice the stitching is, especially since they were done with a bone needle.

Starting to take the person out of the parka

If you remember, last summer we excavated a burial which had some well-reserved fur and hide, including a parka.  We put in a freezer (thanks to NSB Wildlife Department and Cyd Hanns in particular), and late last week we brought it to the lab.  It took a bit longer to thaw than I thought, so we were only able to start today.  Some of the folks I’d hoped could look at the skin sewing since the furs aren’t in great shape and some of the sinew thread (ivalu) has dissolved are out-of-town for the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Annual Meeting and related event, but Shawn is here, and it wouldn’t be right to keep the person around just to study.

So I set up a video camera, and am using two other cameras, one with a macro lens to record stitching and so forth, and another for overall shots.  Plus I’m taking a lot of samples, and notes as well.

The bundle of furs before we started.

I got started, with a bit of help from Shawn.  He still had one other person to deal with, so I went on without him for a bit.  Qaiyaan Harcharek, and Lottie Jones, from the Inupiat History, Language and Culture Commission staff came by.  Lottie had to get back to the office, but Qaiyaan, who has a degree in Anthropology, came back and we worked on the person until after 5:30.

The first bit of the caribou hide wrapping unfolded at lower left.

What we were able to figure out so far is that the person was laid on a caribou hide, so of which was wrapped up around the lower legs and over the left side.  It’s possible that it may also have been over the right side and decayed so badly it wasn’t recoverable.  I’ve got to go back and look at the pictures and notes from the excavation.  Once we got part of the hide unwrapped, it was clear there was another kind of hair present.  Caribou have long, fairly straight hollow hairs that don’t taper very much.  There was a lot of much finer, tapering hair, which had matted down.  We were discussing what this might be, and had guessed at maybe wolf when Qaiyaan and Lottie had to head back to town.

Further unfolded, with what turns out to be wolf beside the photo scale.

I kept unfolding layers of furry hide, and all of a sudden, there were long dark guard hairs showing.  One more fold, and there was a very well-preserved patch of what is obviously wolf (if you’ve seen wolf skins, anyway).  It actually feels very much like my wolf ruff, which was probably running around 5 years ago, even though this one must have been dead for hundreds of years.  We don’t have a date yet, but wolf should be good for dating.  So that mystery was solved.

Shawn was able to look at the remains of the cranium, which had not been as well-preserved, and the person seems to be a child of 4-6 years or so.  We all have kids, and it made us sad to think how this child’s parents must have felt.

We still don’t know what the wolf was.  It has stitching, but it seems to just be wrapped around the legs.  The child is wearing what appear to be skin-in caribou boots, which may actually go all the way to the waist, sort of like hip-waders.  The wolf doesn’t seem to be over-pants, especially as the hair side is in.  Maybe we can figure that out tomorrow.

Physical anthroplogy underway

Shawn Miller, the physical anthropology PhD student (and University of Utah anatomy instructor) who examines and records the data on the human remains from Nuvuk prior to their reburial, is here.  He has been working on the multiple burial with an intact box that we excavated in early July.  It is looking like there were two primary individuals, probably both men.  The juvenile elements could all have come from the same individual, Shawn thinks, so there may have only been three people in this burial.

It is looking like one of the adults has signs of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia.  These have generally been considered as signs of iron-deficiency anemia and a diet lacking in animal food-sources, but recently it has been suggested that this may be incorrect (Walker et al. 2009).  Certainly that would seem unlikely for someone living at Nuvuk, as there really was almost nothing available there but animal food.  It will be interesting to get the dates for the individual, who was apparently more recent, since there was reportedly considerable starvation after Yankee whalers decimated the bowhead stocks.

I went to get the coffins that we had in stock.  UIC RE Maintenance folks had made us a bunch, since it is easiest to cut a whole lot of standard size pieces at once.  Unfortunately, things seem to have been moved around in the warehouse where they were stored, and we seem to be short a few boxes and quite a few lids.  The ones I found were scattered in several locations.  I was able to find enough for the individuals in the burial, and will see about getting some new lids made later this week.

Trip to Wainwright–Part 1

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I had to make a quick trip to Wainwright.  It was way quicker than I liked, because I didn’t have time to get in touch with folks before going, and really just had to do what I came to do and jump back on a plane.  A human skull had shown up during a survey, and the client wanted to know if it was an isolated find or not.

So I flew to Wainwright on Thursday night.  Tim Van Sickle from Olgoonik, the Wainwright village corporation met me and took me over to the Olgoonik Hotel.  We got some dinner and made plans for the next day.

After breakfast, we caught up with the son of the landowner, who was handling access arrangements.  After discussing it with him, we headed to the GPS location given by the surveyors, taking four-wheelers along the lagoon.  As usual, the LCMF surveyors GPS and my not nearly as fancy unit agreed, and it put me within .5m of the spot.  It was up on some high ground overlooking the Kuk River (kind of redundant name, if poorly spelled–kuuk means river) and lagoon.  The view was great.

Wainwright lagoon and small lake

Indeed, the surveyors were correct.  I examined the area, and discovered, that there were additional remains.  Interestingly, although the skull had been were it was found for quite a while (no plants growing under it) it had previously been about a meter away, where the lower jaw was embedded in the tundra, and a now-well vegetated depression into which the skull fit still existed!

Where the skull has been for a while

There was some indication that there might have been a grave, but there was also a frost crack and a bone partially covered with vegetation visible on the surface.  I gently removed some of the vegetation to let me see if the surface bone was human, and then tested where the jaw suggested the rest of the skeleton should be if it had been a burial.  Although we had a shovel with us, I opted to use only a trowel, to avoid any damage if there was anything buried.  Tim took pictures of me actually working, and I’ve included a couple which don’t show any human remains.  As he said, people always tell him he’s got great pictures of Alaska, but he’s never in any of them, so he volunteered to take some of me.  Many thanks!

Removing vegetation to identify bone. Photo: Tim Van Sickle
Cutting sod with a trowel. Photo: Tim Van Sickle
Taking notes. Photo: Tim Van Sickle

In the end, it looks like the person, most likely a woman, probably was laid to rest on the surface, which was the practice in this area when Euroamericans arrived.  Exactly when the switch from actual burial, as at Nuvuk, to “surface burial” took place is not clear yet.  Since there is no actual project yet, and it is possible there never will be, or it will be located at a considerable distance (more likely due to this find), we placed some stakes so that people on four-wheelers or snowmachines would be less likely to run the remains over, and left them where they had been laid to rest.  If things change, time enough to move them then.  They are in a nice place, with lots of salmonberries nearby.

Salmonberries!
More salmonberries!

Sadly for us, the patches had been picked pretty recently, so we only found a handful of ripe berries :-(.

The good folks at the NSB (thanks Tommy and Qaiyaan) had provided me with maps of the area to take along showing locations of TLUI (Traditional Land Use Inventory) sites and AHRS sites plotted along with the GPS of the remains.  Several of them were very close, so after we had confirmed the existence of the remains, we went to look for evidence and more precise locations of those sites.  That way I can give that data back to them so they can improve their database.

Sometimes science produces unexpected results…

Much of today went trying to find freezer space for the person in the parka.  We were able to get X-rays done by the North Slope Borough vet clinic (they needed a bit of practice with a new machine anyway), and there are skeletal elements in the parka.  I talked to a conservator and it seems possible that the garments might be able to be preserved if the community chooses. We need to have a discussion with the Elders about that.

At least we need to document them really well, as they are being removed so the person can be examined and reburied.  To do that we need not only a good videographer, but also a group of experience skin sewers, since the sinew has decayed, and it may only be possible to figure out what stitch was use by skilled sewers looking at the ghosts they left.  We need to get the funds for that work, which probably won’t be available until October or so.  That means that we need a freezer to keep the person in a stable environment until the examination can happen.

CPS/UMIAQ couldn’t really offer anything right now, except to note that it hadn’t been requested in the program plan last year (sadly, I’m not clairvoyant–if I were, we could skip all the pesky shovel testing).  Fortunately, North Slope Borough Wildlife Management also has a freezer, and they were kind enough to step up and help out in this urgent situation.  Many thanks to DWM!  One UMIAQ fellow later thought of a freezer that might be a possible fallback, although it’s got stuff in it at the moment.

Next step, grant applications for that work and for the Ipiutak structure that remains at the bluff in the DWF, waiting for the next big storm to take it out.

Best day yet

We had a really great finish to the official field season.  We excavated a last burial which turned out to be that of a very muscular person, who seems to have been buried in or on bird skin (maybe a bird parka).  A possible burial (a human bone showed up in a test pit) turned out to be an isolated find, so we don’t have an unexcavated burial undone.  There was a complete egg in the dark organic soil by the bone, which looks like something a fox might do to hide a stolen egg, so maybe the fox brought the bone there from somewhere else.  The DWF continued to have a number of interesting artifacts (nice lithics, ground slate, composite labret). I’ll try to get pictures up in the next few days.

We were able to backfill all the big holes, record all surface finds, cover the DWF in hopes of being able to come back later this year, and still get the students home at a reasonable hour.

Some of us are going out again in the morning with an NSF-funded Mexican/North Slope student exchange group of about 25 or so.  We’ve worked with them before, but not after the season ends, so it’s a bit challenging to find something to teach them that doesn’t risk disturbing something we haven’t got the time or crew to deal with.

I only got 4 hours of sleep last night, so off to bed.

What a day!

The weather was not pleasant.  It rained all day, and was pretty cold.  My fingers are swollen up like sausages.  The rain also took out the track pad on the computer for the transit, so we couldn’t back up the files in the field.  We were able to use a mouse in the lab, and got the files backed up and transferred to the other laptop, so if the track pad doesn’t perk up, we’re OK.  My Nikon Coolpix S9100, which I just got last night to replace one that failed after a week, died the same way today.  Nikon won’t issue a refund for 15 days, which is truly ridiculous under the circumstances.  I’ve been committed to Nikon, loved all the SLRs I’ve had (FM, 4 FEs, 4 N70s, D200) and liked everything about this camera, too, except it won’t work.  Epic fail.  So don’t buy one!

On the plus side, the very deep burial turned out to be a person wearing a fur parka and wrapped in hide!  You can even see traces of the stitching.  We aren’t sure how well-preserved the person is (we found a few finger bones and a nail inside the cuff).  We decided to take it out en bloc (complete) and take it back to the lab to excavate in controlled conditions so we can document the garment better, since it is very fragile.  We had some plywood brought out and managed to slide it through the gravel under the entire burial and lift the whole thing.  This required the digging of a very large hole, which we’ll now need to backfill.  Many thanks to Brower Frantz and his crew for bringing out the plywood and transporting the individual back to the lab while we kept on in the field.

Right arm and side of the fur parka, lying on a hide.
Close-up of stitching on parka

The DWF keeps yielding more artifacts, some of which are quite nice.  We’re trying to get to a reasonable stopping point and figure out a way to protect the exposed feature in case we can get funds to work on it in September.

Artifacts from DWF.

Things get a bit exciting…

As is traditional at the end of a field season, things started getting a bit exciting.  The possible burial we found in STPs yesterday proved to be the real thing this morning, and the feature we worked on on Monday also turned out to be a burial. It is the deepest burial I’ve seen at Nuvuk in the fifteen years I’ve worked there.  It appears to contain two children, covered in fur.  We hope to finish it tomorrow.

I had hoped to be done with the DWF today, but fish bones kept coming, along with an arrowpoint, a worked walrus humerus, some worked bird bone, what look like a broken needle, and more lithics.  Recording all that with the transit took time.  We still had the windbreak up, but there wasn’t much wind, and since it was the second warm day in a row, the mosquitos were swarming.  Thank goodness I always have bug dope in my pack, or I don’t think much would have gotten done.

In other good new, the replacement for the Nikon Coolpix S9100 which I had for a week before it stopped working arrived, so I will have a pocket camera for snapshots.  More pictures for here without lugging the D200 home to download the card every night.

 

Sunshine & blue skies…

…and a full crew.  We started work on the burial under the plank.  It took quite a while, as the plank was complex to define.  It was all one piece, in some places up to 9 cm thick, and had obviously required a great deal of work and skill to make.  The top surface looked like the outer surface of the tree.  The bottom surface showed evidence of burning, in some areas completely charcoal.  It should be good for C14 dating.

The remains are those of a large male.  Preservation is a bit variable, but it looks like there might be some ribs that could yield aDNA.  In any event, he will be safely out of the trail.

Many on the crew did STPs.  So far nothing has shown up.  It is beginning to look as if there is a gap in the burials (or at least a much thinner distribution).  I’ve begun to wonder if this could be the result of a village move due to erosion, which brought the village close to the cemetery and made them skip a bit of ground to put the new cemetery at a proper distance from their residences.

At least it was a beautiful day.

Back at it…

After a day off, we were back in the field today.  The GPR hits we tested were mostly concentrations of water, and buried whale bones (not part of graves, unless it was a whale grave).  However, we also looked at two other areas that had turned up in the trails on the first day’s walkover.  One proved to be nothing but a concentration of refuse.  The other wasn’t looking much more promising, with peat and a little wood, but we took it down to expose all the wood, and low and behold, a very large piece of wood indeed, which is a burial cover.  We will have to excavate that tomorrow.  There will also be a new set of GPR results to test.

The burial cover exposed. That is one piece of wood! The dustpan is covering what may be a bone, so the photo can be used for the public.

There is also some wood exposed on the erosion face at what looks like the Ipiutak level, including something that looks like architecture.

Notched log resting on another log. Ipiutak?

Still working on it…maybe

We finished excavation of the primary individual in the burial, and even managed to remove the box for further analysis and sampling in the lab.  The second individual whose grave had apparently been disturbed seems to be a secondary burial, since there was a nail under the cranium, although there was a bird blunt among the remains, so…  And another very large skeletal element turned up, so there may still be more of the very large man.

More on all this later.

…turns into five…or possibly six (!)

It was fairly windy today, which made it a bit colder.  The GPR sleds are working much better, and even what they got yesterday looks promising without elevation correction.   They used a backpack Trimble GPS unit to get accurate elevations, and will use that to correct the GPR images.

The burial is becoming more complicated.  There are indeed 2 primary individuals, the most recent (a woman, we think) one whose grave cross-cut another smaller person’s grave.  The woman had a couple of leg bones from a smaller person in her “box”, which may or may not come from the smaller person whose grave was cross-cut.  There were also a few cranial fragments from a small child in the box, and a few elements from a sub-adult (but not the small child) turned up today.  There is also a pelvis from a large man, which makes at least 5 individuals.  If the leg bones don’t come from the second grave, it could be six.

We have expanded a bit and aren’t seeing much sign of any grave structures, so we are beginning to wonder if some of these individuals aren’t buried some meters away, with a few parts having been moved by vehicular traffic.  This may wind up being a case for the GPR.

One turns into three…

It was a great day in the field, with really lovely weather.  Dennis O’Rourke got in last night and joined us, as did Rhett Herman, & his student Jared Palmer with the GPR gear.

Crew members at the start of the day

We started excavation of the burial that had been found in the road.  As with most road burials it has suffered some disturbance.  At first it looked like there was a large man (found part of his pelvis), then a neck vertebra from a small person showed up, then one skull, then another, and then the nasal area from a third (!) person.  We still have more to do tomorrow, so this may change, but at the moment it looks like there may have been two burial side by side, and a third burial was dug across one of them at a later date.

Starting excavation of the burial

The GPR  guys had a good workout.  They had set up the units on carts, which had worked well yesterday on the beach near NARL, but something at Nuvuk must be different, because they described it as being like “pushing a shopping cart in sand.”  Naturally, this meant that they got less done than they had hoped, but they saw some things and will have a plan view in the morning.  I saw them this evening, and they’d already changed the configuration to a dragable sled, which seems like it might make tomorrow better for them.

GPR gear ("Eva") in foreground, with flagged survey grid in rear
Jared pushing the GPR lawnmower in a brief foggy period